Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.
The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!
Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)
Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy. Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.
So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.
Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!
Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road
The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.
The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.
A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.
I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!
From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.
A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.
A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.
When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.
One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.” Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?
The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees, or flies, rather than honeybees or bumblebees. They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!
Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.
Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason – so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.
Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods
Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed. Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving. (Anyone have an ID for me?)
Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left)basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.
At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.
At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!
A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow
Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them. So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)
And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!” A new creature for me!
On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!
Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge. The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.
The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.
The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.
A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming
Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
The last two weeks at Bear Creek gifted me with some exciting moments – seeing previously unseen birds, witnessing unusual nesting behavior, watching a turtle struggling to bury her eggs and being surprised by a little butterfly I hadn’t seen for years. So though the blog just visited Bear Creek two weeks ago, I wanted to share the bounty I’m enjoying before the season changes much.
Unusual Birds and the Usual Ones Doing Interesting Things!
As many of you know, I’ve been walking in Bear Creek for 25 years and I’ve watched for owls all that time. They spend their days sleeping right next to tree trunks on high limbs, and despite craning my neck for years, I’d never spotted one. But on the first June bird walk, a fellow birder, Bob Bonin, spotted one high up in a tree near Bear Creek Marsh. Huge, silhouetted against the morning sky, this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) wasn’t easy to see, much less photograph. But luckily, I got a few shots before he gave the group an annoyed look, lifted his huge body with his massive wings and flew away. Such a thrill! (Click on arrows for slideshow; use pause button for a closer look.)
A bit earlier that morning, we saw an unusual bird at the other end of the size spectrum. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) perched high on a snag behind the Center Pond and turned his iridescent green back to the morning sun. We saw a quick orange flash at his throat but I missed it. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. I) indicates that males’ throats look brown or black if the light doesn’t hit their necks just right. When I returned on a late afternoon, there he was on the same snag – but this time the afternoon sun caught the edge of his throat which shone gold rather than ruby red. He’s not the most glamorous hummer, but I’m glad I got to see a bit of his gleam.
Near the Center Pond, the birders also discovered the nest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – with the male sitting calmly, tending the eggs or nestlings. Occasionally, he even sang his lovely tune as he waited patiently. I’d read in the Stokes Guides that male Grosbeaks sometime take on this responsibility, but I’d never seen it. On three separate visits, the male was the only one on this nest – though the female may have relieved him at other times. So, Happy Father’s Day to this dedicated Grosbeak dad!
In a willow to the right of the deck in the Center Pond is a beautiful nest. It’s cleverly attached between two vertical branches about 20 feet up, ingeniously woven and quite large – maybe 9 inches long. During my first 3 visits, only the female’s black tail cocked behind her was visible from the observation deck. Finally one afternoon, I waded into the grass at the pond’s edge and caught sight of her hindquarters as she fed her young. And then, I saw a fledgling’s head just above the edge of the nest. Ah, this nest was constructed by a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – a somewhat eccentric one since Red-wings normally build close to the water and weave their nests among cat-tails or reeds. She’s quite an architect! The location of this elaborate nest makes it nearly invisible and unreachable by predators. Clever mama Red-wing!
Two nests appeared high in a tree on the Walnut Lane. The barely visible, masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) peeked through the leaves that camouflaged the first nest spotted by the birders. Since she sat there quietly every time I visited, I’ve included a photo of a Waxwing from a previous year so you’ll remember how elegant this conscientious mother bird truly is!
Across the Walnut Lane, the birders also discovered the nest of a female Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) who spent several days building her gauzy, somewhat more loosely constructed nest. She proudly stood above it a few days later as it neared completion. The female Kingbird constructs the nest and keeps the male off it until the eggs hatch. Then both parents feed the nestlings. But even during the egg phase, the male stays on a branch nearby to defend the territory for his mate and young.
Another good provider, a tiny male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) brought a bright green caterpillar to feed his nestlings or mate. In between feeding trips, he’d let loose with his proud song, “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” Impressive dad who can bring home the bugs, singing all the while! Bet the female warbler was as impressed as I was.
An Orchard Oriole male (Icterus spurius) serenaded us from a small tree in the middle of a meadow. His long, melodious song sounded much like the third song recorded at this link. A few Orchard Orioles seem to come to Bear Creek each year – but they migrate south by mid-July. So keep an eye out and an ear cocked soon in the meadows to the east of the Walnut Lane!
An invisible bird, high up in the tree tops, repeated its melodious warble continuously one warm morning. I’ve never seen a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus); they rarely come down from the heights. But fortunately, a great photographer from the iNaturalist website, Steven Mlodinow, has seen one and generously allows others to borrow his photo. Listen for this warbler’s rich melody all summer long, but don’t be surprised if you never spot this elusive summer resident.
Little Surprises Near the Wetlands
At the northeast corner of the Center Pond, a young Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hurried to cover her eggs one hot afternoon. She’s found a likely spot where Ben had cleared away invasive shrubs a couple of years ago. As you’ll see in the video below, she work really hard with her back legs to get the dirt to move. She’d no doubt have preferred sandier soil! But she was determined to see the job done!
I’ve seen Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens)periodically at Cranberry Lake but never one at Bear Creek. But hearing their snoring call near a wetland, I waded into tall grass and found this one, hiding among the greenery. Glad to know this beautiful frog is at Bear Creek, too.
Ben noticed an Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) toad on the path one afternoon when we went to look at nests. Normally, I only see brown toads, but Wikipedia informs me that “The color and pattern is somewhat variable, especially for the females. Skin color can change depending on habitat colors, humidity, stress, and temperature…Some toads of this subspecies have a more pervasive red and deep brown color, many with red warts on their bodies.” So this little toad is probably female and the red description fits her pretty well. I wonder if the unusually hot temperatures had an effect on her appearance? Hard to tell.
Amazing Insects: A Butterfly I’ve Missed for Years, Favorite Dragonflies and the Skills of Tiny Pollinators
Next year, I’ll be looking for the boldly patterned Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton) on June 11 or 12. I’ve only seen them on those two dates, 6 years apart! This year, four of them fluttered at a spot in the trail where water runs under the path – a place I’ve often seen other small butterflies feeding on minerals left by the water. Later in the summer, watch for the communal caterpillar webs of these small butterflies (about 2.5 inches) on the host wildflower Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) where these butterflies lay their eggs during the summer and where the caterpillars first feed.
Interestingly, in the fall, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars wrap themselves in leaf litter, overwinter and finish developing in the spring. This seems to be a big year for them – so keep an eye out if you see a small, dark butterfly at your feet.
Different species of dragonflies seem to appear each week to dance among the budding wildflowers and over the pond. The dramatic, yet quite common Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)did indeed skim over the tops of grasses in the Eastern Meadow this week. Dragonflies often land, fly, and then come back to the same dry stalk – so if you miss one in your binoculars the first time, wait a moment and you’ll probably see it in the same place again!
A bright green Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) dragonfly clung to a grass stem on the western slope. If it’s a male, it will gradually turn blue over the summer. If a female, it will remain green. Probably this one is newly emerged since it’s hunting in a meadow. When it’s ready to mate, it will rendezvous with others at the Center Pond.
A small Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) dragonfly posed for a face-on selfie at the Playground Pond before continuing its quest to consume as many mosquitoes, flies and other small insects as possible before the day is out. Love its cartoon-like face and the one yellow dot on its tail that give it its name.
Pollinators are busy all over the park, feeding and carrying the pollen that will bring us next year’s blooms. This may look like a European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)but Honey Bees are fuzzy all over and this one just isn’t. So it’s more likely to be a Dronefly (Eristalistenax), a type of Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), which uses its pattern, slight fuzziness and loud hum to mimic male Honey Bees as a way of protecting against predators. Droneflies cannot sting, but a passing dragonfly probably doesn’t take a chance!
I noticed what looked at first like a tiny wasp on this umbel of a native Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) near the Center Pond. But after a bit of research in Pollinators of Native Plantsby Heather Holm, I’m going to guess it’s a female Leaf-cutter Bee (family Megachilidae). It has a wasp-y pattern and shape and it’s collecting pollen on its abdomen and on the top of its back leg (look at those jodhpurs!). Leaf-cutters cut small, neat circles out of leaves, hence the name. They then roll up a single fertilized egg and a chunk of pollen in each circle, forming a solitary, cigar-shaped nest which is placed in a hole in the soil, wood or other structures. Such an unusual nest!
Bring a Friend – or Friends! – to Visit Your Favorite Park
I’ve always loved walking alone in the township parks. I can listen to birdsong, stop to look at something tiny like the Little Wood Satyr butterfly below, or enjoy the fresh scents of wood, greenery, the earth after a rain in silence. Solitary walks are contemplative.
But this particular blog testifies to the special pleasures of hiking with interested friends and family. First of all, they just bring more eyes! I’m always seeing things with the birders or with my husband, that I’d never have noticed with just my two eyes (in this case, the owl, the hummer, the oriole, the male grosbeak in his nest and more). But also their curiosity piques mine. They bring specialized interests and knowledge. They often patiently help me find the bird hiding in a leafy tree (“The center trunk at about 2 o’clock…). It’s a different kind of delight to walk with nature-noticing friends. So if all of this nature stuff intrigues you, take some nature-lovers with you on your next walk. Or consider joining our friendly birding group on Wednesday mornings year ’round. We’d love to have you join us! (The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the home page.)
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
What a crazy February and March, eh? Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again. Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world. A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice. Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail. Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.
Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds
American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days: find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning. “Peter, Peter, Peter,” he trilled, despite the snow below.
A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs. The male below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.
Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on. That upward spiral was a clue. It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark. If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.
The longer days brought a warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps? This sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.
Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On
Somewhere near the middle of February the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures, came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!
This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February! I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!
Further along, an Eastern GarterSnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.
On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.
The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs. Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish. This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now, we’ll just say she’s a crayfish. If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own. Thanks to Ben for his great photo.
A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond. Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say. It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!
In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later. The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts. The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog.
Winter Returns, Sigh…
The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below. One morning in a cold wind, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs. They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.
At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.
The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.
On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.
And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks. Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks. Wish I could see this animal in the park. Its scat is everywhere! We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!
Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself
Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek. Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears. At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago. But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek. I never paid much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk. But in February, I decided to follow it.
It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw years ago during a drought that dried up the pond. All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond, with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream. In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.
From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of the culvert under Gunn Road.
The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west. In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.
It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.
Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall, the creek crosses under Collins Road.
It flows along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,
At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.
A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future
It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek. Long may it meander across the landscape. If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.
If you wonder why it’s so tricky to get photos of migrating birds in the autumn, have a look at the colors of the western Old Field above. The bright gold of the goldenrod has now faded to a soft silvery brown. In their subdued winter plumage, small birds can be nicely camouflaged as they feed. Vines full of fruit hang from bushes and trees – with just enough leaves to make a perfect hiding place. So to see these small visitors, a park walker’s best tools are their ears. Birds aren’t singing now but they do click, whistle, chip and cheep as they move through the tall grass and vines.
I’m not expert enough to identify birds by these autumn calls. I can only locate birds by hearing clicks and cheeps and then wait for them to emerge long enough to take a quick photo or glimpse them through binoculars. This week, some chirping sounds in the woods led me to a delightful chipmunk competition as well. So here’s where my ears led me this week at Bear Creek.
Listening for Migrants: Still Here but in Smaller Numbers
This Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) kindly appeared on a bare branch over the marsh. Its field marks in the fall are that yellow spot below the wing and the rectangular yellow patch above the tail visible in the photo below. Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to be quick and noisy while foraging and even make a chek sound when flying. Page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link to hear their fall cheeping. I love the thought that some of these birds spend the winter on tropical coffee plantations!
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was still here this week, but I only saw single birds, not flocks like last week. This tiny bird is only about 3/4 of an inch longer than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and like the Hummer, can flutter in the air as it picks seeds off of the goldenrod. We spotted this one because of its restless flitting and its call, which sounds a bit like a high-pitched version of the American Red Squirrel’s scold. Click here and page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link.
White-throated Sparrows on their way south bounced and swayed among the goldenrod, looking for seed, or rested, perching in short trees and shrubs nearby. The yellow dots in front of their eyes (their “lores”) make them easier to identify than some sparrows. Cornell describes their call as a “high, level seep”; I’d say a small, soft cheep, but you can listen here under the second “call” and see what you’d name it. This one seemed a bit annoyed at my camera!
A smaller group of young White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)moved into and out of the tangles of brush along the paths. These brownish youngsters, like the ones in last week’s post, were born south of the Arctic circle this summer. When they return in the spring, their heads will be boldly striped black and white. They’ll have a lovely song then but right now they make a rather simple sparrow “chip” as they forage among the greenery.
The cheek pattern on this brown and gray sparrow means it might be a Swamp Sparrow,but since it refused to emerge from its hiding place in the goldenrod, I can’t be quite sure! If it is, it’ll have longer legs so that it can actually put its head under water to capture aquatic insects. This one was clearly hiding so it didn’t make its metallic “chip” call.
Our summer Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are departing and ones from farther north are arriving here for the winter. Jays are members of the very bright Corvidae bird family, like Crows. Here’s a curious winter migrant exploring a standing dead tree (or “snag”) in Bear Creek. You’ll hear lots of raucous Jay calls in the park right now, as they flock in from the North. The familiar call is at this link at the third recording under “Calls.”
Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) make good use of “snags” for drumming when courting or making holes for nesting in the spring. Now they make only a soft tapping sound as they search for insects and the occasional seed. Their quick vertical/upside-down/every-which-way acrobatic trunk hopping serves as a better clue to finding one. Downies travel in mixed flocks during the winter. According to the Cornell Lab, they get more warning of predators and find more food that way. Females (no red head spot) evidently feed on larger branches or the trunks of trees because males (red spot on back of head) prevent them from feeding on smaller branches and weed stems which females seem to prefer when males are absent! So here’s an “oppressed” female Downy on a large limb.
A Noisy Chipping Competition with an Unimpressed Audience!
The fall colors in the marsh are lovely and I have always loved this big willow that floats like a cloud above the reeds at the south end. Male mallards flutter in the water in an effort to impress the females and find a mate for the spring. Since many of them have not finished molting and still have brown feathers mixed with the iridescent green, the females aren’t paying much attention yet.
In the woods at the edge of the marsh, though, I came across the auditory dueling of EasternChipmunks (Tamias striatus). They each “chipped” steadily for long minutes, presumably defending their cache of nuts and seeds from possible snitching by the other. With winter approaching, it happens! So these chipmunks loudly defended their territories – presumably from me as well as other chipmunks. I saw one of the noisy characters, its whole body throbbing as it “chipped” loudly from a fallen limb.
I wasn’t able to find the answering chipmunk on the other side of the trail, but I did spot a listener nearby.
But evidently, the listening chipmunk found whatever was being communicated quite distasteful – or perhaps it was just having digestion problems! But its expression changed and made me laugh out loud.
Here’s a 30 second recording I made of the two dueling chipmunks warning each other – and me probably – to respect their territory!
Seeds in the Wind!
This week the slender pods of native Butterfly Milkweed (Ascelpias tuberosa) broke open and the wind took the ripe seeds dancing through the air. Whenever we find milkweed seeds of any kind on a mowed or limestone path, some place where it would be difficult for them to grow, my husband and I pick them up and release them into the wind. (We don’t break open seed pods! The seeds aren’t mature until the pods open and the seeds start flying on their own.) We toss or blow them into the air because we want more of milkweed next year. And besides, watching the seeds sail across a meadow, competing to see which one goes farthest and highest, is a good game!
So if you come to Bear Creek this week – or any week – perhaps you too can discover how your ears, as well as your eyes, can help you spot birds, especially small ones, that you’ve never noticed before. And if you see some milkweed seeds that have landed in unfortunate places, toss them skyward and watch them fly!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org